Wow! I certainly followed up Verne with a completely different book, didn’t I? I don’t think two books could be less alike than “Journey to the Centre of the Earth” and “Vainglory”!
According to Wikipedia, Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank (17 January 1886 – 21 May 1926) was an innovative British novelist. His eight short novels, partly inspired by the London aesthetes of the 1890s, especially Oscar Wilde, consist largely of dialogue, with references to religion, social-climbing, and sexuality.
I actually have a little bit of history reading Firbank – I have somewhere in the stacks a very old-style Wordsworth Classic of “Valmouth” which I know I read (the bookmark is still in the book at the end of that story) but I can remember absolutely nothing about it, apart from that I enjoyed it! This would probably be at least 15 years ago, so maybe that’s not surprising – but I do wonder I would have made of it at the time, knowing nothing much about Firbank and not having any context in which to put him. Maybe a revisit is due.
But on to “Vainglory”, a volume kindly provided by Michael Walmer, an independent publisher I’m happy to support. According to Michael, Firbank is considered a “difficult” writer, but I don’t think he’s difficult – just different! The story here revolves around the desire of the wonderfully-named Mrs. Shamefoot to have a stained glass window built in her honour. She fixes on Ashringford cathedral and much of the action is set there, while she tries to persuade all and sundry that the window would be a good idea. Around Mrs. Shamefoot circle a huge array of wonderfully-named characters, just a few of whom are Mira Thumbler, Julia Compostella, Winsome Brookes, Dr. Pantry, Mrs. Henedge, Mrs. and Miss Wookie, and the three Chalfont sisters, never seen apart and constantly laughing madly about something – laughter that becomes dangerous….
However, as Wikipedia astutely points out, “the plot is of minor importance and the interest, as with all Firbank’s work, lies in the dialogue.” And what dialogue it is! I think this is where the accusations of difficulty will come from, because it *is* sometimes not obvious whom the dialogue is coming from or what the character is talking about. The best way to think of it, really, is as if you’re eavesdropping on some wonderfully scandalous, gossipy, witty conversations – you’re not always sure straight away who is being discussed or why, but if you just go with the flow all becomes clear!
And the prose *is* witty and sparkling and very unexpected – Firbank juxtaposes words in his descriptions you wouldn’t expect; his comparisons are often outlandish but surprisingly effective, painting vivid pictures of the rarefied society he’s writing about. Take the picture he paints of Mira Thumbler:
“Mira Thumbler was a mediaeval-looking little thing, with peculiar pale ways, like a creature escaped through the border of violets and wild strawberries of a tapestry panel.”
And then a simple description of the preparations for a soiree contains this:
“In the centre of the room, a number of fragile gilt chairs had been waiting patiently all day to be placed, heedless, happily, of the lamentations of Therese, who, whilst rolling her eyes, kept exclaiming, “Such wild herds of chairs; such herds of wild chairs!”
The risk here is that I’ll pull out so many quotes that it will dazzle you – but just a couple more:
“The world is disgracefully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain.”
“Although there were moments even still in the grey glint of morning when the room had the agitated, stricken appearance of a person who had changed his creed a thousand times, sighed, stretched himself, turned a complete somersault, sat up, smiled, lay down, turned up his toes and died of doubts. But this aspect was reserved exclusively for the housemaids and the translucent threads of dawn.”
If Firbank is a forgotten novelist at all, it’s a shame. His wit and cleverness should put him up with the Sakis and the Wildes of this world; and his use of so much dialogue does make me think of Ivy Compton-Burnett! I *did* love this book, and I shall return to “Valmouth” with new eyes. This is a lovely new edition of “Vainglory” by Michael Walmer, and I’d highly recommend Firbank to anyone who loves witty dialogue!